In concert – CBSO / Edward Gardner: Simply Schubert – Symphonies 1 & 4



Fierrabras D796 – Overture (1823); Symphony no.1 in D major D82 (1813); Symphony no.4 in C minor D417 ‘Tragic’ (1816)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Town Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

One of many projects left in abeyance by the pandemic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Schubert cycle with its former principal guest conductor Edward Gardner duly continued this evening with a programme of that composer’s First and Fourth Symphonies.

Schubert may have been barely 16 when he essayed his First Symphony, but its confident if quirky assimilation of traits as derived from Haydn and Beethoven is more than a statement of intent – not least with an opening Allegro whose imposing introduction returns after the development to broaden the movement’s emotional scope. Gardner realized this unerringly, while drawing an incisive response from the CBSO in the first theme and winsome elegance in its successor as subsequently headed into a coda of bracing if not overly insistent finality.

For all its Mozartian gracefulness, the Andante yields an emotional ambivalence most notable in the plangent exchanges of woodwind and string towards its centre. These were enticingly conveyed, as was that contrast between rhythmic trenchancy in the Menuetto’s outer sections with its trio’s more affable demeanour. Precision of ensemble meant the final Allegro never risked seeming repetitious, Gardner steering it with assurance and not a little flexibility to a coda that emerged as never less than entertaining in its forceful reiterations of the home key.

Three years on, the Fourth Symphony confirms a greater formal and expressive breadth – not least in the first movement’s introductory Adagio whose underlying portentousness makes its contrast with an impulsive and often anxious Allegro more acute. Gardner and the CBSO had its measure, as they did the ensuing Andante in which Schubert’s woodwind writing is heard at its most felicitous. Any contrived distinction between the hymnic main theme and its more volatile alternate episodes was hardly in evidence as this movement drew to its easeful close.

For all its brevity, the Menuetto (a scherzo in all but name) can be rhythmically treacherous in its syncopation, but there was no lack of focus here or in the trio’s folk-like lyricism. Nor did the moto perpetuo underpinning the final Allegro run out of steam – Gardner sustaining   a cumulative momentum across the exposition’s repeat then into an intensive development which brought an opening-out of mood through to those decisive closing chords. Its ‘tragic’ connotations may be tangential, but the teenager’s seriousness of purpose cannot be denied.

Opening the programme was a relatively rare revival of the overture to Fierrabras, the last of Schubert’s ill-fated attempts at grand opera – even though time and subsequent stagings have largely vindicated his efforts. Gardner drew palpable expectation from its introduction, and if what ensues seemed a little stolid rhythmically, the dramatic flair of the composer’s orchestral writing was not in doubt. A pity the even less often heard Overture in E minor (1819) did not open the second half, as its abstract drama would have prefaced the Fourth Symphony ideally.

In any case, this was a welcome addendum to the CBSO’s current season and not least for an opportunity to hear the orchestra playing at its former venue of Town Hall. Hopefully another such concert, featuring Schubert’s Great Symphony, can be scheduled sometime next year.

For more information on the CBSO and their 2022-23 season, visit the dedicated page on their website. Meanwhile click here for more on conductor Edward Gardner.

Playlist: Herbert Blomstedt at 95

by Ben Hogwood

To mark the 95th birthday of the great Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt on Monday just gone, Arcana has put together a playlist including a snapshot of some of his greatest and most enduring recordings.

They include the Fifth Symphony of Nielsen, part of a landmark cycle of the composer’s symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Decca. Blomstedt’s recordings with that orchestra in the 1990s were notable for their sonic prowess but left some critics cold; however on revisiting his Sibelius cycle, for instance, they stand up very well. The Third Symphony is included here, as is the first Peer Gynt Suite of Grieg.

Also in the 1990s came a trio of fascinating discs lending weight to the cause of Paul Hindemith. A disc of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, the Symphonic Metamorphoses and Trauermusik was to be expected, perhaps, but the follow-ups were even more valuable – a disc of the music for Nobilissima Visione, the Konzertmusik for Brass and Strings and Der Schwanendreher, and a pairing of the Symphonia Serena and symphony from the opera Die Harmonie der Welt, included here.

Blomstedt has more recently recorded a well-received Brahms cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, though prior to that recorded a fine disc of the composer’s choral works in San Francisco. With the Gewandhaus, however, he has completed his most recent release, that of Schubert’s Unfinished and Great symphonies. The former is included here. Enjoy this selection of wonderful recordings!

In concert – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Jac van Steen – David Matthews Symphony no.10 world premiere, Schubert & Brahms


Brahms Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor Op.13 (1854-8)
Overture to Rosamunde D797 (1820)
David Matthews
Symphony no.10 Op.157 (2020-21) [World premiere]

Stephen Hough (piano, below), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen (above)

MediaCity UK, Salford Quays
Friday 20 May 2022, 3pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A substantial programme was the order of the day for this afternoon’s studio concert from the BBC Philharmonic with Jac van Steen, given at the orchestra’s regular base in MediaCityUK and that featured a first performance anywhere for the Tenth Symphony by David Matthews.

Whereas his previous symphony was written for relatively modest dimensions, the Tenth marks a return to larger forces: triple woodwind (with doublings), four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba and four percussionists alongside timpani, celesta, piano, harp, and strings. It also finds Matthews (above) retackling the one-movement format that dominated his earlier symphonies, allied to a subtle process of developing variation such as ensures unity across a varied and eventful discourse. Not least when that massive opening chord sets out a long-range tonal and harmonic trajectory for this work overall, and to which a pensive (offstage) cor anglais solo then intensifying string fugato provide both continuation and contrast by anticipating the types of expression and motion as variously come to the fore.

Distinctive in themselves yet drawn into a tensile and cohesive entity, the constituent sections take in a wistful intermezzo then an agile scherzo on the way to a central culmination whose increasingly explosive energy likely marks a point of greatest engagement with that opening chord. The music duly heads into a slower episode of sustained emotional raptness, elements heard earlier gradually being recalled through an unforced while never discursive process of reprise towards a coda whose ending seems the more conclusive for its poised equivocation. An absorbing and often gripping exploration of symphonic tenets such as Matthews has long pursued, persuasively realized by the BBCPO and van Steen – whose support of the composer – having already recorded the Second, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies – hardly needs restating.

Before the interval, Stephen Hough (above) was soloist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto – a piece he has given many times (not least a memorable reading at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the early 1990s, Andrew Davis also giving a seismic account of the Symphony by the late Hugh Wood). There was emotional breadth aplenty in the initial Maestoso, but also latest energy as came to the fore in a combative development and tempestuous coda. Nor was the symphonic aspect underplayed in what is still the most monumental opening movement of any concerto.

If the central Adagio lacked a degree of repose in its orchestral introduction, Hough’s take on its almost confessional solo passages brought the required inwardness, with the course of this movement towards its agitated peak or enfolding serenity at its close never in doubt. Nor was that of the closing rondo, especially a central episode whose string fugato was deftly rendered then the piano’s gentle response enticingly conveyed. After the cadenza, horns and woodwind emerged as if leaving a benediction prior to the triumph that coursed through those final bars.

Throughout this performance, van Steen was an alert and responsive accompanist – then put the BBC Philharmonic through its paces with an animated account of Schubert’s Rosamunde (a.k.a. Die Zauberharfe), which made for an engaging if unlikely entrée into the Matthews.

For more information on David Matthews you can visit his website here. For more on the artists in this concert, click on the names to access the websites of Stephen Hough, Jac van Steen and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Schubert String Quintet


Schubert String Quintet in C major D956 (1828)

CBSO Soloists [Kate Suthers and Bryony Morrison (violins), Amy Thomas (viola), Miguel Fernandes and Helen Edgar (cellos)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 10 February 2022 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Just one work in this afternoon’s Centre Stage but, given this was Schubert’s String Quintet, no-one could complain of being short-changed. Music, moreover, that has featured regularly in recitals given by members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra over the years (not least the first live performance for this reviewer, given at the Birmingham and Midland Institute in the early 1980s as the second half of an imposing programme which opened with Brahms’s First Sextet) and that remains an emotionally involving experience like few others.

Pacing this work so its textural richness is allowed full rein without any loss of momentum is at least half the story, not least an opening movement whose contrasting themes need to find expressive accord from the outset. The present account succeeded handsomely in this respect, not least by varying the balance between these themes in the repeat of the exposition, and if the development marginally lost focus in its earlier stages, the heightened lead-back into the reprise brought an emotional frisson almost matched by the stark conclusiveness of the coda.

Whether or not the finest movement as to actual content, the Adagio is often the highlight of a performance – those outer sections shot through with a yearning regret which was tangibly in evidence. While the central episode could have been even more agitated, the spellbinding transition into the initial music was unerringly judged. Nor was anything amiss in the contrast between the Scherzo and its trio; the former bracingly impetuous, the latter inwardly fatalistic (and making the most of those rapturous two-cello sonorities) without ever becoming turgid.

If the finale often feels anti-climactic, this is not because of its relative concision but through an inherently Viennese ingratiation as was rightly played down in preference for a rhythmic forthrightness maintained through to a close that conveyed defiance as much as decisiveness. It duly set the seal on an impressive reading as drew an enthusiastic response from the near-capacity house. Hopefully an equally sizable attendance will be in evidence for next Friday evening’s recital, featuring Bach and Piazzolla, which comes courtesy of El Ultimo Tango.

You can read more about that next Centre Stage recital, and book tickets, on the CBSO website

In concert – Sandrine Piau & David Kadouch @ Wigmore Hall – Journeys: Longing and Leaving

Sandrine Piau (soprano), David Kadouch (piano)

Schubert Mignon (Kennst du das Land) D321 (1815), Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister D877: Heiss mich nicht reden; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (1826)
Clara Schumann Er ist gekommen Op. 12 No. 1 (1841); Sie liebten sich beide Op. 13 No. 2 (1842); Lorelei (1843)
Robert Schumann Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister Op. 98a: Kennst du das Land (1849)
Duparc La vie antérieure (1884); L’invitation au voyage (1870)
Lili Boulanger Clairières dans le ciel (1913-14): Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve; Je garde une médaille d’elle; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Debussy Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917); 5 poèmes de Baudelaire (1890): Le jet d’eau; Recueillement; La mort des amants

Wigmore Hall, London, 17 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

It was heartening indeed to see the Wigmore Hall at capacity for the visit of soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist David Kadouch, bringing with them a new program with the theme of Journeys: Longing and Leaving.

They delivered the songs in two ‘halves’, one of German Lieder drawn  from the first half of the 19th century, the other of French song from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving us a smooth trajectory from Schubert to Debussy.

Refreshingly the journey took in substantial contributions from Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, three songs from each – as well as showing the increasing influence of Wagner on even the smallest forms of vocal music as the century turned.

Singing from a tablet, Sandrine Piau gave heartfelt performances and had the ideal foil in David Kadouch, whose brushstrokes on the piano were immediately telling. His chilly introduction to the third song in the Schubert group, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, set the tone after a characterful first song and a sorrowful second, with a soaring vocal line from the soprano. Piau sang with arms outstretched, expressively capturing all the ornamentation and hitting the depths of the song’s turbulent middle section.

The Clara Schumann selection was fascinating, especially given the context of husband Robert’s well-known productivity in the years 1841-1843. The urgent Er ist gekommen was first, a heady song sitting high in the range, before a setting of Heine from just after Schumann’s celebrated year of song, a yearning and ultimately tragic number with a limpid commentary from the piano. The Loreley started in the same key, pushing restlessly forward. The only Schumann song in the program retained its intensity despite a noisy mobile phone introduction, a very different setting to the same text as tackled by Schubert at the start.

Turning to France, we heard two from the small output of Henri Duparc, whose entire output barely covers the length of a single concert. There is quality rather than quantity, however, and we heard the celebrated L’invitation au voyage, sumptuously performed with great poise. The two found the ideal pacing for La vie antérieure before it, solemn but quite open, and building to a powerful declamation.

Lili Boulanger wrote powerfully original music before her tragic death at the age of 24. Her orchestral tone poems have received greater exposure of late but the songs have remained relatively hidden. Piau and Kadouch put that to rights with three songs drawn from the wartime collection Clairières dans le ciel. They found an ominous tone in the lower vocal register from Piau, all the more so given the retrospective knowledge that Boulanger would only live for another three years from when the songs were written. The pained complexion at the end of Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve from Piau was profoundly affecting, then a slightly more optimistic Je garde une médaille d’elle led to the purity of Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme.

Finally a selection from Debussy, prefaced by his final published piano piece Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon. This was a nice touch as an interlude, and was beautifully played. by Kadouch, We then heard three of the five Baudelaire poèmes, beginning with a babbling fountain shaded by Kadouch as Piau’s voice floated easily above. Recueillement (Meditation) found stillness initially but with the poet, distracted by darker thoughts, was mirrored by the music breaking from its reverie. Piau judged the awkward intervals perfectly, especially the final words with their harmonic transformation. The ultimate farewell was saved for last, La mort des amants quite a complex song. As with much early Debussy the harmonies travelled far but arrived at a strangely logical end point, both performers exhibiting exceptional control at journey’s end.

Piau spoke of the program giving ‘therapy after these two long years’, after which Beau Soir – one of Debussy’s celebrated songs – proved the ideal encore, though as the soprano warned, it was essentially saying, “Look at these beautiful things, because everybody goes in the same direction – death!”

Watch and listen